Frasier Farms

Frasier Farms

Frasier Farms

Mark Frasier, Frasier Farms, Woodrow Colorado. Credit: Mark Frasier.

I think historically a person would be hard pressed to say that the drought we’ve been in recently is any more severe than what my father experienced in the 1950’s or my grandfather in the ’30’s. When you look directly at any one aspect of weather – variability, precipitation, temperature, length of growing season – those are always in flux. In the environment where we live, 40 degree fluctuations in temperature are not uncommon any time of the year. Our precipitation comes in concentrated periods of time and it’s not necessarily predictable. There is an inherent unpredictability about our environment.

Mark Frasier

Frasier Farms

Southwest Region | Woodrow, CO

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 29,000 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Holistic management, dynamic stocking, cow-calf plus stocker operation, long-term weather forecasts, subsidized production insurance.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Frasier Farms is a family owned and operated ranch that spreads across 44,000 acres of rolling native shortgrass prairie in Eastern Colorado, where the land is dry and the wind is almost always blowing. Brothers Mark, Joe, and Chris Frasier manage the ranch in two divisions, one near Limon and the other near Woodrow. Frasier Farms produces cattle with an 800 head cow-calf and stocker operations and offer hunting leases and custom grazing. The rolling hills of native grasses such as blue gramma and buffalo grass are managed using planned grazing practices that improve soil health and the health of the grassland, recycle nutrients and enhance biodiversity on the ranch.

Mark Frasier has managed the Woodrow division of Frasier Farms for more than thirty years. In addition to the calves produced on the ranch each spring and fall, Mark buys stocker cattle each spring to run about 5,000 head when fully stocked. The cattle are split into three large herds and moved through 125 pastures on the 29,000-acre ranch, leaving 90 percent of the ranch free of cattle at any one time. Cattle produced on the ranch are marketed to feedlots through value-added natural beef and source-verified programs. Mark also sells into higher value markets by planning production to catch seasonal high prices and retaining ownership of a portion of the cattle sent to feedlots.

Mark says that year-to-year variability in seasonal weather patterns, dry periods, drought and winds are the most significant long-term challenges to dryland ranching on the eastern Colorado plains. Particularly critical is the timing and type of precipitation through the year, because grassland response to weather conditions changes throughout the growing season. Mark explains, “Let’s put it this way: A two-inch rain in September doesn’t have near the value of two inches of rain in April or May. We just get a lot more bang from an earlier precipitation event. Spring rainfall tends to be a drizzling, all-day sort of affair in the best case. When we have the same amount of precipitation in the late summer months, it’s more likely to come in an afternoon thunderstorm, so it is not as effective in terms of capturing that moisture into the soil because there is more runoff.” Wind can also present some challenges to cattle management. “On the plains, especially in the spring,” says Mark, “we can have some very strong winds and we can have winds in the summer as well. If it’s hot, those summer winds can just whip moisture out of the soil and have a very great drying effect on the plants and the soil.”

Weather variability and extremes have always been a part of life in the Great Plains region, and Mark doesn’t perceive that there has been any change in these challenges in his lifetime. “Our operation is entirely native forages,” says Mark, “and the production that we get from that varies year by year per the growing condition that we experience. It has everything to do with temperature and the amount and timing of precipitation. In terms of first day frost, in terms of wind, in terms of how long the grass stays green, all those kinds of things vary year by year. No two years are the same and they never have been. So that’s really one of our challenges is trying to manage in a highly variable environment. We develop a plan but that plan has to have significant contingencies in it because the conditions will always change.”

Mark goes on to explain that the natural environment in eastern Colorado is well adapted to the weather variability and extremes typical of the region. “For example, the grasses are extremely opportunistic,” Mark says. “They don’t have a narrow window within which they need to grow or to put out seed or perform some other function. They will stay in near dormancy until conditions are just right and then they’ll just explode and we’ll have a significant amount of growth in a very few days. Plants have evolved in the sense that they are adapted to an environment that is unpredictable. Our environment is not ungenerous, but the plant has to be ready to grow when the conditions are right.”

This same kind of preparedness to take advantage of opportunity when it comes is a central feature of Frasier Farms management. “Personally, I don’t understand when people complain about not getting rain and then when it does rain oh, now it’s too muddy,” says Mark. “We constantly prepare for the next rain, because, generally speaking, our most limiting factor is soil moisture. If in everything that we do, we can create an environment that is receptive to precipitation, so that whenever it does come we can take advantage of it, we will just be that much more efficient and more effective. It’s an attitude or a philosophy that’s grown over time. It is something a person experiences in the sense that, after you’re unprepared a time or two, you begin to think ahead a bit more. So it’s just a function of maturing and management, I think, as much as anything else.”

Mark draws on many resources to enhance the capacity of Frasier Farms to weather variability and extremes, but the use of adaptive management strategies have proven key to his success. He explains, “I look at that key word, variability. You’ve got to have adaptive management to respond, both in terms of knowing how to respond, but also anticipating what a change will bring. Oftentimes making a timely decision is key, either in a cost-saving sense or in a sense of conservation of natural resources.”

Managing both a cow/calf herd and a stocker operation gives Mark the flexibility he needs to respond to changing weather conditions. “We have the two components.” he explains. “The cowherd is actually a smaller piece of what we do. We’re bringing in most of the livestock on the ranch. If conditions are not favorable for the growth of grass, we don’t bring as many cattle to the ranch or we can destock early or in some other way change the number of cattle on the ranch. That’s our control valve. We have certain performance expectations for the cattle. If conditions are not good, then we don’t meet those expectations, and on the flip side, if conditions are very good, we exceed them. It’s not a doomsday situation for us to pull the cattle from the grass because they’re destined for a feed yard anyway so the fact that they may be going to the feed yard forty-five days earlier than normal or weighing fifty or a hundred pounds less than what we expected is not good, but it’s not a complete disaster.”

Mark also uses some other tools to reduce weather-related production risk. He finds that long-term weather forecasts — one or two months ahead — can be helpful when making stocking decisions if conditions are dry. He is also trying out a new type of federally subsidized insurance that insures the livestock producers against a large deviation from normal precipitation. This “rainfall insurance” is a pilot program of the USDA Risk Management Agency and at present is only available in a few locations.

Thinking about the future, Mark is fairly confident that he has the resources needed to keep Frasier Farms healthy, productive and profitable despite weather variability and extremes, although his confidence is related to the particular situation, as he explains. “I’d say it is really situational. It depends on what the extreme is and when and how it presents itself. There are times when I feel very compromised just because there’s not much I can do at the moment. And there are other times that situations unfold more slowly and if you have the capacity to understand what’s happening, you can modify the resources you have or take advantage of opportunities to mitigate risks.” He feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn how to successfully manage grasslands and cattle in the more variable climate of the Great Plains. “I’ve seen extremes in almost every sense and so I know what comes next. I know what the end result is likely to be. I have been through it and I am prepared to deal with it. Although no one likes to be in that position, I’d say I’m comfortable with it.”

Mark is active in the civil life of his community and has provided leadership over the years to a number of community-based and agricultural organizations. He consults with other ranchers on holistic range management and is a regular speaker at agricultural events. Mark currently serves as the president of the Colorado Livestock Association. In 2003, Frasier Farms received the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Regional Environmental Stewardship Award, which recognizes the outstanding stewardship practices and conservation achievements of cattle producers across the United States. Frasier Farms was profiled as one of sixty model U.S. sustainable farms and ranches in the USDA-SARE publication The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.

 

The 77 Ranch

The 77 Ranch

The 77 Ranch

Gary and Sue Price, The 77 Ranch, Blooming Grove, Texas. Credit: Karl Wolfshohl.

We should be very wet right now. We have cracks that you can put your hand in and that’s highly unusual for the middle of March. Our grass is not growing because it’s been too cold and it’s way too dry. We’ve gone now 90 days with a little less than one inch. In a time that is usually one of our wettest times. We are following 20 inches of rain which was unusual for the fall, so I mean right as we speak (March 2014) we’re seeing tremendous variability. You just don’t know what’s around the next corner, so you have to prepare for the worst. Hope for the best of course, but you know, hope’s not a plan.

Gary & Sue Price

The 77 Ranch

Southern Great Plains Region | Blooming Grove, TX

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 2500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Holistic management, reduce herd size, grasslands restoration with planned grazing, grazing cover crop cocktails, carbon farming.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

The 77 Ranch near Blooming Grove, Texas, sits at what could be considered ground zero for climate change impact in the continental United States. Historic drought in the southern Great Plains in 2011 and 2012 led to massive destocking of beef cattle on ranches throughout the region. Declining cattle herds drove the closures of cattle feeding and processing operations in the region and cost hundreds of jobs, while rising beef prices set new records. Yet through it all, Gary and Sue Price, owners and operators of the 77 Ranch, were able to maintain production of their 190-head cowherd without the need for supplemental feed or water. What sets the 77 Ranch apart from other ranches in the region? Why is it so resilient to drought?

The Prices began assembling their ranch almost forty years ago through the purchase of neighboring croplands and degraded rangelands. The productivity of a remnant native tallgrass prairie on the ranch in drought made a big impression on Gary. Using planned grazing, along with technical and financial support from numerous public and private organizations, Gary began to restore native prairies throughout the ranch, convinced that they could form the basis for a resilient, productive and profitable cattle production system. The historic drought of 2011 and 2012 seems to have proven him right.

Today, Gary uses planned grazing to manage a 190-cow beef herd on the restored native grasslands that dominate the 2,500-acre ranch, which also has 200 acres of cropland and about 90 acres of improved pastures. More than 40 acres of small stock ponds and small lakes provide water for livestock and waterfowl and generate extra income through the lease of fishing and hunting rights. The majority of the ranch’s income comes from marketing cattle produced on the ranch into value-added wholesale cattle markets through a source-verified program.

Gary has noticed a number of changes in the weather, which used to be pretty reliable, over the years he has been raising cattle at the 77 Ranch. “We had winters, very cold winters, and then we had a good spring flush that was very predictable,” he says. “We knew when our clovers were going to start growing, and we could almost predict to the day when we were going to have enough grass to stop feeding, usually about mid-March.” Gary remembers that July through early September was predictably hot and dry. “You knew you needed to get your business taken care of by middle of July,” he recalls. “We always used to say, you need to just hang on until the middle of September and then you were going to get fall rains again, and then you would be okay. That was fairly predictable. October was the transition month, November was nice and we would wean calves in October and November. We have our calving season fixed for that, but you just don’t know what to expect these days. It’s incredible, but you can throw all of that out now.”

Gary understands that memory can be faulty, particularly when comparing changes in weather through the years. “I know there’s probably some error, but with that said, I know that I’ve seen some things in the last five years or so that I’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen clover die in March or April for lack of water. It was much more usual to be challenged with mud in the spring and with figuring how are we going to get around and get cattle fed. That was fairly predictable.” Another big change he has noticed is the intensity of dry periods and drought. “The complete loss of precipitation for periods of time is very unusual,” he says. “We had a period in 2011 where we went three months with zero rain. I never saw that before. And that is not just my perception, those were records.”

Gary has made a number of changes at the 77 Ranch in response to the increased variability and extremes of the last five years. He has reduced the size of his cowherd to about eighty-five percent of the maximum he knows the land can support and he has leased additional rangeland as it becomes available near the ranch as some additional insurance against declining forage yields in times of drought. “In ranching, production challenges are always going to be related to your ability to produce forage,” says Gary. “You’re trying to grow as much grass as possible and do it as economically as possible. That is really the center of what we do. Producing high-quality forage takes healthy soil and then obviously it takes water as well. So the three main considerations would be the forages, the soil and the water.”

Gary is experimenting with grazing cover crop cocktails on his croplands for the first time. “We’re learning to manage for less water, we’re planning on less water and more heat, so we’re keeping as much cover as we possibly can on the land and then trying to balance that out with our stock numbers,” he explains. “These are great times in the cow business. We have the best markets ever. We want to try to take advantage of that, but not at the expense of our resource, because we’ll end up hitting a brick wall. It’s a short-term gain, and then you’re out of grass and that will not work in the long run. We want to do any and everything we can to protect the resource. We know that’s very, very important to not take these grasses down too far. We want to manage them so that they have the ability to respond to whatever rain we do get.”

Although the last few years have been extremely challenging, Gary sees some opportunity in the changing climate conditions. He admits he is an optimist and says that the increased variability has helped him become a better manager. “It’s given me a better understanding of the water cycle,” Gary explains, “and the importance of organic matter and soil health. These are things that we sometimes took for granted in the past and did not pay enough attention to. Once you go through a deal like 2011… we had thirty ponds that were completely dry. We had dead fish everywhere and gates thrown open, and some pretty big lakes that were dry. The extreme drought has made it clear how important soil health is to our overall operation. It has really motivated me to learn everything I can to make the place a sponge.”

Gary is pretty upbeat about the future, because the ranch has such a healthy natural resource base. He also appreciates the easy access to technical assistance and support to help him maintain the productivity and profitability of the ranch under changing conditions. “We feel pretty good. We think we are on the right track. We’re not wringing our hands over this. We’re thankful that we chose the right track many years ago. Everything in ranching is a moving target. It’s constantly changing, some things more than others. We must be very flexible in all that we do, and especially in our thinking, to adapt to changes. That’s just the way it is.”

Gary and Sue are both very active in civic, natural resource and agricultural organizations, regularly host visitors, field days and workshops at the ranch and collaborate in federal, state and nonprofit research projects. Gary and Sue were recognized by the Sand County Foundation with the Leopold Conservation Award in 2007. In 2012, they received the Outstanding Rangeland Stewardship Award from the Texas Section of the Society for Range Management and the Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association named Gary and Sue the national winners of the 2013 Environmental Stewardship Award.

 

Cates Family Farm

Cates Family Farm

Cates Family Farm

Dick and Kim Cates, Cates Family Farm, Spring Green, Wisconsin. Credit: Dick Cates.

If the grass is getting shorter and it is not raining, the worst thing you can do is keep grazing. If you take the grass down too short in our part of the country, the soil will get hot and that grass will stop growing. You’ve got to get off it, so the ground doesn’t get hot. Last summer (2012) was the worst. I had to ship cattle off to pasture and I’ve never had to do that before.

Dick & Kim Cates

Cates Family Farm

Midwest Region | Spring Green, WI

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 930 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Restoration of oak savanna with intensive grazing, reduce herd size and increase rotation speed to leave more residual, add irrigation, expand slightly, increase stream crossings.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Dick and Kim Cates operate Cates Family Farm, a grass-fed beef farm near Spring Green in the Driftless Area of southern Wisconsin, about an hour northwest of Madison. The farm has produced pasture-based beef for more than a century and has been in the Cates family for over forty years. It includes 700 acres of managed grazing land and 200 acres of managed forest.

Dick learned the business of livestock production at the Cates farm, but left home after college to gain experience ranching in Montana and managing livestock overseas in Saudi Arabia. He returned home in 1987 and took over management of the farm’s beef cattle herd and with Kim’s help, made changes to improve farm profitability including adopting rotational grazing practices, restoring a native oak savannah on their land, and using intensive grazing to restore a trout stream that runs through the farm. Since 1990, the Cates have raised stocker cattle to maturity on their farm. The grazing season usually runs from early April to the end of November. The rest of the year the cattle that are overwintered on the farm are fed hay purchased locally. The Cates direct market their pasture-raised steers as “grass-finished” to grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias and households around southern Wisconsin and in the Chicago area.

More variability and extremes in weather over the last ten to fifteen years have created some new management challenges at Cates Family Farm. “In my mind, we have had more high temperatures, more dry periods, more excessive rain, wet periods, so yes, more fluctuations,” explains Dick. “Moisture extremes and temperature extremes, I mean big winter extremes, minus twenty, minus thirty. More snow in the winter. Back when I was a boy we had quite a bit of snow in the winter, but then there were a lot of decades after that we didn’t have very much.”

Dick has noticed a change in weather variability since about 2000. “Well, there seems to be more frequent and longer dry periods as well as more floods,” he says. “We have a trout stream running through the property and occasionally it floods. Back in 2000, we had excessive rain that caused flooding. And then we had the excessive rains that caused the flooding in 2007 and 2008. Fortunately we haven’t had another big flood since then, but we’ve had more droughts. I have kept rainfall data on my farm since 1987. I’ve seen more intense rainfall events and then longer dry periods. And along with those dry periods, it has been really hot. In 2004 there was record high heat here.”

More snow in winter, plus rising hay prices, have sharply increased overwintering costs. Dick explains, “It is getting more difficult in the winter, because hay is more expensive than it was and we have more snow, so we have to feed longer in the winter. I used to open the gate in January and February and they could find grass. That was in the ’80s and ’90s, but not so now. It started about four or five years ago, I can’t remember exactly. We got well over a hundred inches that winter and since then there’s been enough snow in winter to keep the grass from showing.”

More variable weather has also increased the complexity of managing spring grazing at Cates Family Farm. “In the spring of 2012 there was record heat and I was in my shorts moving fence on March 15. I have a picture of it. Then in April of 2013, we got record cold. It was awful, it was still winter, it never got warm! That was the biggest challenge on our livestock. Normally, by April 1 it is starting to change and by April 10 you have cold rain and green grass. In 2013, we couldn’t graze them until the end of April and then they were still mucking around in the mud. The cattle were very stressed during that period. The hot wears them down, but that cold weather in April when their hair is wet and they are mucking through the mud and they are not getting good forage quality, boy it was really tough on them.”

Dick has made some changes to management to reduce risks from more variable weather and extremes. He has reduced his stocking rates over time to be sure that the farm can produce sufficient forage for their cattle during more frequent dry periods and droughts. He has also thought some about how to reduce hay costs, perhaps by purchasing hay from a number of different suppliers in summer or renting some land and growing his own.

Another change might involve adding irrigation to some pastures that suffer more during dry periods. “I have friends who are looking at a K-Line irrigation system, the kind that you can drag around the pasture behind an ATV. That would be something that I may have to look at. Several friends have already done that.”

Although Dick plans to retire in the near future, he feels confident that grass-based livestock producers in Wisconsin have the resources needed to successfully manage the increased variability and extremes in weather. Dick explains, “I’ve been blessed by my connections to the Wisconsin grazing networks and our Wisconsin producer groups, as well as the Farm Bureau Federation, the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union and Wisconsin Grass Works. Our extension agents are really good.” At the same time, Dick wonders about farmers just entering the business. “When I was starting out,” he says, “the biggest issue was marketing and now, honestly, for new farmers I think it will be the uncertainty of the weather.”

Dick and Kim Cates have been recognized for their stewardship of the natural resources at Cates Family Farm with the 1998 Wisconsin Conservation Achievement Award and the 1999 Iowa County Water Quality Leadership Award. In 2013, Dick and Kim were recognized by the Sand County Foundation with the Leopold Conservation Award.

 

Settlage & Settlage Farm

Settlage & Settlage Farm

Settlage & Settlage Farms

Jordan Settlage, Settlage and Settlage Farm. Credit: Settlage and Settlage Farm

Holy moly! In 2012, we had major drought which led us to buying irrigation equipment, because we had two million gallons of water stored in our lagoon that we could just stare at while our crops shriveled up and dried. And then 2015, same thing, super dry. Then we get a year like 2018/19, where we got rain from August of 2018 all the way until June of 2019. That’s like ten months of just endless rain. And it was a disaster.

Jordan Settlage

Settlage & Settlage Farms

Midwest Region | St. Mary’s, OH

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 500 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to intensive grazing grass-based dairy production.

Jordan Settlage has wanted to milk cows for as long as he can remember. Although dairying is part of his family’s legacy, Jordan’s grandfather got out of the dairy business in the early 1990s, one of many thousands of dairy farms forced out of business as the U.S. dairy sector industrialized.4 Jordan’s dad was happy to leave the demands of dairying behind to raise hogs and beef cattle instead. “I would tell my dad, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a dairy farmer,’” Jordan recalls, “and he’s like, ‘That’s hilarious. I grew up on a dairy farm, we’re not milking cows.’” In the fifth grade, I wrote the report about how when I grow up, I will be a grass-based dairy farmer. I still have that report.”

With his father’s blessing, Jordan worked at a neighboring dairy farm throughout his teen years. After graduating from high school, Jordan served for almost four years in the Army. He returned home in 2009 a combat veteran, ready to continue his education. “I graduated college in 2014,” Jordan recalls, “and I was like, ‘Hey dad, I still want to be a dairy farmer. I’ve been doing this for most of my life already. I want to milk cows.’ And so in the fall of ’14, we started buying some equipment for cows and we started milking again.” February 2021 marked Jordan’s six-year anniversary milking cows.

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Sap Bush Hollow Farm

Sap Bush Hollow Farm

Sap Bush Hollow Farm

Jim and Adele Hayes and family, Sap Bush Hollow Farm, Warnerville, New York. Credit: Jim Hayes.

Variability in precipitation is always a challenge when you are producing livestock on pasture. It wasn’t too bad here until around 2000. But since then, particularly in the last couple of years, we’ve seen more variability with respect to some drier periods as well as excess moisture and flooding which is causing some problems.

Jim & Adele Hayes

Sap Bush Hollow Farm

Northeast Region | Warnerville, NY

Main Product: Livestock

Scale: 160 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to intensive grazing multispecies pastured livestock production, direct markets, add backup solar, drainage, raised barn, ponds, reinforced poultry shelters, FAMACHA monitoring system, mob grazing, shifted lambing season.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

At Sap Bush Hollow Farm, three generations of the Hayes and Hooper family produce grass-fed lamb and beef, pastured pork and poultry, all-natural wool fiber, organic honey and all-natural handcrafts in the hills of Schoharie County, New York. All these products are sold through direct markets on the farm and at local farmers’ markets, and the non-perishable products are also marketed through the farm website and a regional foods website.

Jim and Adele Hayes established Sap Bush Hollow Farm in 1979 on 160 acres of upland pastures and wooded mountains near Warnerville, about an hour west of Albany, New York. With the goal of slowly building a pasture-based livestock business, they concentrated on sheep for the first decade, producing lambs for seasonal holiday markets. As they gained experience and marketing knowledge, they next expanded into pasture-based poultry, both layers and broilers, and finally added beef and pork, all in an intensive grazing management system.

Today, Jim and Adele manage a 200-ewe flock to produce their lambs and purchase all the other livestock they finish each year. The ruminants — beef and sheep — are 100-percent grass-fed and are rotated through a system of twenty paddocks on the farm, while the poultry and pigs spend their lives on pasture and are fed grain sourced from neighboring farms. The Hayes appreciate the multiple benefits of their diversified, pasture-based livestock production system to soil quality, pest management and marketing. They use no pesticides, other than worming medications when needed for the sheep, and there is virtually no soil erosion on the farm. They have not used any soil amendments, other than lime, for more than thirty years.

Over the last decade or so, more variable weather and extremes have created new challenges at Sap Bush Hollow Farm. Jim and Adele have adapted to more dry periods and drought by leasing some additional pastureland to increase their capacity for forage production and they have built ponds to provide water to every paddock on the farm. Stronger and more frequent winds are also challenging farm operations, even though the farm is in a sheltered location, and they have had to reinforce their portable poultry huts with steel bases to withstand higher winds.

In 2011, Sap Bush Hollow was right in the path of two back-to-back hurricanes — Irene and Lee — that caused catastrophic flooding in South Central New York. Jim says that the storms were an eye-opening experience for everyone in the community, particularly with respect to how quickly the road system in the area was destroyed. “The damage that those storms caused was very frightening,” Jim recalls. “That really reset our thinking in a lot of ways. Within a three-hour period the stream that runs along the state road below our house flooded and gouged out the entire road, the whole fifteen feet of macadam.” Jim and Adele had moved their flock of sheep to a neighboring farm that is at a higher elevation to protect them from the storm and were disturbed to learn that they could not get to them after the storm passed.

Although the sheep were less than a mile away, the flooding had destroyed the two bridges between their farm and the farm where they had sheltered their flock. “With the help of neighbors, we were able to repair the bridges enough so that we could walk over them. And so we were able to go up and drive the sheep home.”

Loss of power after the storm was also a worry. “We didn’t know how long we would be without power,” recalls Jim. “I thought we would be out for weeks at least and we have usually several tons of meat here in storage in our walk-in freezers. We have a generator that runs off our tractor but we only have storage for about three hundred gallons of diesel fuel on the farm.”

Another worry was feed. The hurricanes hit near the end of the poultry and pork production cycle, so the farm did not have a lot of feed on hand. “We were near the bottom of the line for feed,” Jim recalls, “and we had maybe a thousand chickens out here and hogs which needed grain. Fortunately, the power and roads in our area were repaired quite quickly. We were lucky in that respect.” Since these storms, Jim and Adele have put in a significant amount of solar power on the farm because of concerns about the reliability of the power grid. They are now looking into adding a reserve battery system to give them additional options for powering the walk-in freezer in the event of a major disruption of the electrical supply.

An indirect effect of the storms was a loss of farmers’ market sales, which are a large part of their business. “My daughter goes to a farmers’ market about twenty-five miles south of us, which is a little closer to New York City. That area has a lot of second homes. During Irene and Lee, they got hit pretty bad and got pretty much wiped out. That reduced our income by about thirty percent for quite a while. I would say that this year [2013] is probably the first year it’s been about fully recovered.”

Over the last fifteen years, heavy rainfalls have become more frequent and have increased in intensity at Sap Bush Hollow Farm. Jim and Adele have made a number of changes on the farm to try and manage the increased surface water flows during the heavy rains. “We were getting quite a bit of flow down the valley,” explains Jim, “and quite a bit of groundwater coming up and saturating the areas where we keep the livestock during the winter.” They built a new drainage system to redirect surface runoff and built a new barn with a raised concrete floor to provide dry shelter for livestock.

Jim and Adele have also noticed warmer temperatures, particularly in winter, and longer growing seasons, which create some new challenges and some new opportunities. “As far as normals go, we’ve been here a long time and the winters are not anywhere as near as severe as they used to be,” says Jim. The warmer and wetter conditions increased parasite pressures in the sheep flock. “About eight years ago or so, we started really having problems with heavy parasite loads,” explains Jim. “Because of the lack of effective deworming medications, we started using the FAMACHA System which is an eyelid test that allows you to estimate the level of infestation of Haemonchus, which is a major parasite of sheep. Overtime, the use of the system increases the flock’s natural resistance to parasites. It’s a whole new system and I think it does work.”

Jim also shifted to mob grazing, a special type of rotational grazing, to reduce parasite pressures. This involves managing pastures in more mature growth phases with high-intensity grazing over very short time periods. “Now we’re letting the grass grow longer,” Jim explains, “and we may only take 30 percent of the available forage from the top down. We have a higher residual level of thatch and the sheep aren’t grazing so close to the ground, so we’re having less parasite problems.” Jim has noticed some other benefits of mob grazing as well, including increased forage production, better production during dry periods, faster recovery after grazing, better weight gains and improved soil quality. “Many producers in the area are reluctant to use it because of the amount of forage that gets pounded into the dirt,” says Jim, “but I think the benefits are worth it.”

Jim and Adele have made some changes to capitalize on the longer growing season and to put their new barn to good use. They have shifted their lambing season from May to April. If April weather is cold and wet, they can lamb in the barn; if it is dry and warm, they can lamb in the open as they used to do in May. Earlier lambing gives the lambs more time to grow and mature during the best part of the grazing season. Jim explains, “We’re looking at a longer grazing season and we’re stockpiling more for winter grazing, two changes that are really going to help us because the difference between winter grazing versus purchasing hay is almost a factor of ten, as far as cost. We hope to get a higher percentage of our animals finished before the grazing season ends and it looks like we may be able to finish an additional batch of chickens each year as well.”

Jim says that most farmers in his area have noticed similar weather changes — more variability, warmer winters, more extreme events — and have adapted in different ways to them. Grain farmers are taking advantage of the lengthening growing season by shifting to longer-season corn varieties. Vegetable farmers are putting up more high tunnels to protect their crops from more variable weather and extend the growing season. Some sheep producers are switching from wool sheep to hair sheep, which have higher resistance to parasites, as a way to manage higher parasite pressures in the longer, warmer and wetter growing seasons. Hay producers have shifted to baleage or silage because more variable weather has made traditional hay making so difficult.

Jim and Adele’s experiences over the last decade have made them realize that they are quite vulnerable to heavy rainfall and more extreme weather events. “It’s come to be a major issue,” says Jim. They are actively working to identify and address major farm sensitivities to more variable weather and extremes and they appreciate the resources available to support their efforts over the last few years. “When we built the new barn we got some cost-sharing through NRCS on part of the flooring,” Jim explains. Federal cost-share money also helped with the project to divert surface water flows on the farm. The Hayes’ have considered federally-subsidized production insurance, but don’t think it would be beneficial because of their product diversity and the cost. Thinking about the future, Jim laughs and says that he isn’t very confident in their ability to manage changing climate conditions. “We’re doing this as best as we can,” he says, “but we realize that these things aren’t going to go away.”

Jim and Adele welcome their customers to the farm regularly and are active in civic and agricultural organizations in their region. Sap Bush Hollow Farm was profiled as one of sixty model U.S. sustainable farms and ranches in the USDA-SARE publication The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.